I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m one of those people. You know the type I’m talking about. The person who checks her phone in line at the pharmacy, at dinner with friends, and even in the bathroom. The same one who almost runs you off the sidewalk because I can’t rip my eyes from my screen.
We all love to criticize those types of people. Really?! we think to ourselves, with disgusted looks pasted on our faces. She can’t put her phone down for two minutes to enjoy the world around her?
But, here’s the flipside of that coin: We all are these people.
And get this:
Wait! Let’s Backtrack for a Second
Yes, we’re all inbox addicts. One study claims that 34% of Americans admit to checking their email “throughout the day.” And, much of this is blamed on mobile. In fact, that same survey found that the average consumer looks at his or her phone more than 150 times per day.
150 times per day!
So, what gives?
Tell me if this excuse looks familiar: Something important could come in—some sort of emergency! You need to always stay in the loop in case there are any fires that you need to put out and crises that only you can address.
Are you nodding your head?
It’s for that reason that the statistic above—deduced from research conducted Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics—surprised me so much.
Only 7% of emails actually need to be seen within the first hour.
Even further, according to Ariely’s study, a whopping 34% fall into the “no need to see it at all” category.
And Now, Let’s Discuss Why We Can’t Stop (and Won’t Stop) Refreshing
I reached out to Ariely and in his response, he said that much of this is a result of the fact that we have a difficult time sorting through our messages. “Email is a real tool for a lot of things,” he says, “Because of that, there are things that are urgent, things that are not so urgent, things that are unimportant, things that should just be archived.”
Further, the behavioral side of our inbox addictions is what reinforces our desire to consistently keep a watchful eye on our emails.
Ariely compares it to B.F. Skinner’s experiments with rats (I know, you’re hardly a rat in a lab, but bear with me), where the critters would push a lever in order to be rewarded with a piece of food.
In Skinner’s tests, he made many discoveries, including that random reinforcement—meaning the rats didn’t know exactly how many lever pushes would result in a reward—inspired much more regular lever-pushing. That random occurrence served as their motivation to repeat that same action again and again.
Ariely says that we act that very same way with email. Each time a new message arrives, we’re convinced that this could be the one—that time-pressing note that we always claim will appear.
In reality? Well, of course, the emails are hardly ever urgent. But, when that infrequent emergency message actually does pop into our inboxes once in a blue moon? We cling to that random occurrence and use it to justify our continued obsession.
“This reinforces our excitement over email, and our almost operant conditioning to just check email over and over and over,” Ariely adds.
And Finally, Let’s Promise Each Other to Break This Habit (Because 7%!)
The next time you feel tempted to take a peek at your incoming messages (particularly during an inopportune time), remind yourself of the fact that a very small percentage of them actually need to be seen within a short timeframe.
Then, take a deep breath, put down your phone, and—you know—get out there and enjoy life without being chained to your emails.
Photo of person on laptop courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author